Helen DeWitt's extraordinary debut novel The Last Samurai centres on the relationship between Sibylla, a single mother of precocious and rigorous intelligence, and her son Ludo, who, through his mother's singular attitude to education, develops into a prodigy of learning. He reads Homer in the original Greek at the age of four before moving onto Hebrew, Japanese, Old Norse and Inuit; studying advanced mathematical techniques (Fourier analysis and Laplace transformations), and, as the title hints, endlessly watching and analysing Akira Kurosawa's cinematic masterpiece The Seven Samurai. But the one question that eludes an answer is that of the name of his father: Sibylla believes the Japanese film obliquely provides the male role models that Ludo's genetic father cannot supply, and refuses to be drawn on the question of paternal identity. The child thinks differently, however, and eventually sets out on a search for his lost father, a search which leads him beyond the certainties of acquired knowledge into the complex and messy world of adults.
The book draws on themes topical and perennial--the hothousing of children, the familiar literary trope of the quest for the (absent) father--and as such, the book divides itself into two halves: the first describes the education of Ludo, the second follows Ludo in his search for his father and father figures. The first stresses a sacred, Apollonian pursuit of logic, precise (if wayward) erudition and the erratic and endlessly fascinating architecture of languages, while the second moves this knowledge into the preterite world of emotion, human ambitions and their attendant frustrations and failures.
This is a book about the pleasure of ideas, of the rich varieties of human thought, the possibilities that life offers us and, ultimately, about the balance between the structures we make of the world and the irredeemable chaos that the world proffers in return. Stylistically, the novel mirrors this ambivalence: DeWitt's remarkable prose follows the shifts and breaks of human consciousness and memory, and captures the intrusions of unspoken thought that punctuate conversation, while providing tantalising disquisitions on, for example, Japanese grammar or the physics of aerodynamics. The Last Samurai is a remarkable, profound and often very funny book. "Arigato DeWitt-sensei"--and after reading this, you'll want to look it up too. --Burhan Tufail